THE BLOG

Cairo Dispatch

I arrived in Cairo for a conference on November 8, 2012, when the U.S. election had just been called, though votes were still being counted. It was my first time in the city and my boss had counseled giving myself at least a couple of extra days -- immerse yourself, he advised, you have to stand on the bridges at night and watch the flirtations. After purchasing my visa on arrival, I waited in front of the most disciplined-looking immigration officer I could find, wearing a white, short-sleeved shirt with blue epaulets, vaguely military -- assuming his line would move more rapidly than the slumped women and other less-engaged workers at the rather decrepit airport. I had chosen right; in minutes I stood eagerly at his window.

"How are things?" I asked.

"What things?" he responded tersely.

"Oh, anything," I trailed off. "Egypt in general."

"It's best not to ask open questions when you're in Egypt," he advised. I had decided to gauge the temperature of the people -- nothing more -- and being a tourist is a great ploy for playing dumb.

My co-worker and I stayed at the Ramses Hilton, on the 17th floor. From our small balconies, we could see the pyramids, and just below Tahrir, the blaring Nile boats lined up, their hawkers on the waterfront, and couples -- some very young -- walking, arms around each other. Coming from Kabul, this was stirring stuff, an erotic leisureliness between the sexes unusual in many parts of the world, certainly the part we'd come from. That night, as the green lights flashed on the boats, each with music louder than the one beside it, we walked the corniche. Egypt possessed a magnificent shabbiness, the sun now sunk behind Giza and the broken street full of hookah-smoking solicitors. Unlike the broad sidewalks of Beirut's corniche, where the Hard Rock Café drew expensive cars, this was no running path for the wealthy, no embarcadero. Shadowy and aggressive, the boatmen offered belly dancing that started at 10 p.m. and went until four in the morning. Boys or girls, your pleasure. I'm not sure why I'm offered boys, but perhaps my baby blue shoes were code. A large wedding party amassed on the sidewalk about to make their way down to a more legitimate looking boat, but there were plenty that looked like they'd hosted floating stag parties for centuries.

We hopped a cab to Khan el Khalili, renowned for shops, restaurants, thin bazaars proliferating maze-like for an area pointless to estimate. I asked our cab driver whether he felt things had improved since the revolution. "Morsi no good," he said. "Morsi does only what the people tell him to do." He made a gesture as though tossing rubbish. I wondered if his evaluation of Morsi meant that he found him a weathervane, like the criticism directed at Mitt Romney, and wondered, too, whether a country's leader should follow the "will of the people," or propose a vision for them, and just what the takeaway of the revolution would ultimately look like. Cairo was clearly not a place where you'd ever find consensus amongst its myriad throng, so perhaps only the loudest, most organized could be heard. But the best ideas of governance might be marginal, with room for disorder and disaffection, continually reorganizing like the thrum of life itself.

As we wandered the khan, here, too, the whistling proprietors insisted on offering pleasure. While I imagine this could be off-putting for some, the mix of seduction and selling brought me a certain satisfaction; at 50 and overweight, it was nice to be whistled at, not to be called "uncle" as would happen in India, or "sir" as would happen anywhere else. No, this was invitation, lewdness without regard for the sex or preference of foreigners turning over souvenirs and crafts, which has, in most countries morphed into a kind of deferential, neutered, non-intrusive affair. This was the kind of salesmanship that must have been thousands of years old, when selling was a game of flattery and quite possibly a genuine prelude to sex.

Eventually, we found the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, appropriately recommended by our concierge. At a fork in the road, the old place was identified with an ornately carved wooden marquee, its tiled entrance full of men and women revelers, playing tambourines (or the equivalent), singing boisterously, and smoking fragrant hookas while waiters took breaks, looking on, bringing out tea or fresh juices. We moved into the less smoky alcove for dinner. A few foreigners were pressed inside, but one could see that tourism has been hard hit; the khan was built for an abundance of chaos, and that night it seemed almost relaxed.

On the return to the hotel, I asked our cab driver how he felt about the revolution. "Nothing has changed," he said. "Nothing for the people."

"That's unfortunate," I said. "Perhaps it will change."

He said nothing.

The National Museum was just across the street, or across the highway, I should say. The next morning we dodged our way through traffic and purchased one of many tickets that separate its rooms, mummies from sarcophagi, Tutankhamen from the other blackened, shriveled rulers of ancient Egypt. The museum seemed well intact, if underfunded, dusty, and a little too available for casual handling. The guards were on heavy patrol, though, to keep camera phones out, even insisting that we delete an image.

I had assumed that most of the museum would be traveling, an enormous source of revenue for the country. But the most famous images I'd seen in catalogs were there. The gold and black-lined eyes of the funereal masks -- all on display, making the mummies in a separate room appear that much more corrupted. Mummification hadn't kept the dead kings and queens from emaciation, and the tufts of hair, mostly at the back of their heads, reminded me of old people I've seen, hands clenched with arthritis and teeth protruding like rodents. The photographs of how the tombs were discovered were the most fascinating, and disappointing part of the museum. Along with those vast gold chests, it seemed that just about anything in the royal home had been jammed inside the antechamber, and not neatly.

I thought of the TV show, Hoarders, and imagined that perhaps we weren't so different from the pharaohs, except we'd democratized storage, so everyone could die with their sentimental junk in a locker somewhere.

My colleague heard the gift shop was badly looted, which seemed respectful or at least pragmatic; selling mummies wasn't practical, too easily traced, and the bodies too easily damaged. Nonetheless, we wanted what anyone wants on a journey to Egypt: the pre-Islamic icons, Anubus, Horus, Osiris, Thoth and the two arms signifying Ka, or spirit. A paperweight for my next office, inevitably a living tomb. Sadly and strangely, the gift shop, an annex as impersonal as a Hallmark store, was still denuded. You couldn't purchase a postcard, plate or poster if you offered blood to the shriveled dead. There was something that didn't make sense about it; the rest of Cairo brimmed with gift shop items, but somehow the museum had not yet restocked. I wondered what the Egyptians who had looted all that junk done with it? Perhaps sold it to the shops in the khan, or kept it in their own living rooms? Or eBay. Yes, this seemed most likely. The Facebook/Twitter revolution had become an eBay glut.

By the time we exited the museum, we had seen what looked like spittle on a mummy's cheek (maybe glue?) and the outline of a squat toilet on loan to Phoenix, Arizona [this was all the sign said]. We wondered what sad Phoenix museum had received it, or if it sat in City Hall, another literally wasteful government expense. And there was the mummy of Maatkare, Hatshepsut. We read that she had been obese. A small, mummified bundle had been buried with her. For years, it was assumed that bundle was her baby, but scans later revealed it was her pet baboon. After a U.S. election marked by endless discussions of "legitimate rape" and the rights of the unborn, it seemed a wonderful twist on the biological certitude we have about women's maternal and eternal aspirations. She was also known to wear a beard, dress as a man, and was the most powerful female ruler in Egypt.

Exiting the museum, we just happened to wander into the largest political gathering in Tahrir since the revolution. "Who are these people?" I asked my friend. They came from all sides, bearded or dressed in the black Saudi hijab. A man sold flags, black ones, with the white circle at the center -- translated There is one God Allah and Muhammad is his messenger -- that I'd seen referred to as the al Qaeda flag. But in Cairo, these were the Shabaab Party flags, apparently a right flank of the Muslim Brotherhood who'd been working to institute sharia law, pressuring businesses to close by 11 p.m.. In a city that had just promised us such pleasures until 4 a.m., it seemed a bad economic idea. Later, we learned that tourist licenses would allow for a second layer of unaffected business to remain open. Only "average" Egyptians would have to abide the moral law. Isn't this the way these laws are always applied, leaving business to run 'as usual,' and everyone else to model upstanding behavior?

Looking at the amassing crowd, it seemed unimaginable that these people were Egyptians. They seemed unlike anyone we'd met, and yet, they may well have been there, observant, ready to take the city closer to Islamic law as they saw it. And suddenly, seeing this organized flank, it occurred to me who may have been whispering into Morsi's right ear. Just as watching Americans carrying Obama placards as the white-faced joker, or with a Hitler mustache, must have whispered into Mitt Romney's ear. My colleague insisted we were in no danger since the U.S. had put the Muslim Brotherhood in power. I argued strenuously about this, remembering Hillary Clinton's car being egged by those who believed she had thrown her weight behind the election results. But it was elections that we had endorsed. That's how I remembered it. Fortunately, if the sharia-supporting Egyptians believed we were behind their struggle, we might avoid coming under attack. Distortions of history seemed fine if we could stand amidst this group of theological hardliners without fear. We found no animus in that crowd, only the strangeness of their vision, which in any context, American or Egyptian, would have worried us.

We went to the pyramids later, and stood in a line to enter the place where thieves had originally found the passageway to Khufu's crypt, a 2.3 million-block puzzle hacked into by persistent predators. Avoid the journey if you're prone to anxiety attacks. A man in front of me asked, "I wonder if they keep track of how many people are in here at once. There's no ventilation." The breath of panicked climbers in my lungs, I eventually arrived in the large, blank room where all the things I'd seen in the museum earlier had probably once been. It was an empty room. But was it worth the climb? I suspect children and archaeologists would think so.

Beside the pyramids and Sphinx, the Solar Boat Museum is truly worthwhile, and perhaps a great metaphor for Egypt at this period of history. The nearly 150-foot cedar wood boat discovered in pieces in the early 1950s, buried under stone, and painstakingly reassembled by a native boat-maker now hangs in pristine space, apparently having carried King Cheops along the Nile, and then, along with all his other items, dragged onto land and close to his burial chamber. Like Herzog's Fitzcaraldo, the effort seems almost an embrace of futility, a sign of an ancient leader's ability to make sand move like the ocean just as Moses had cut the ocean into a passage of sand. The insurmountable is linked to the eternal, a high bar for those who govern today, especially those seeking theocratic legitimacy.

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Later that evening, we wandered where the old American University of Cairo campus was located, and took a side street. We entered a handsome restaurant, Felfela, with live birds and a fake waterfall, with Jimmy Carter's signature on the menu from 1979, other American senators whose handwriting we couldn't decipher. Our waiter seemed genuinely glad to see us, then exposed a tattooed cross on the inside of his wrist. "I'm Christian," he announced.

"But are the Coptic Christians safe since the revolution?" I asked. "Yes," he said, perhaps not fully understanding my question. "Everything is good."

We ran into a young student later that evening and asked him about the demonstration we'd seen earlier. "Is it common to have these demonstrations?"

"Last week we came out and they threw stones at us. The police broke it up. So this week they'll come out, and next week we'll come out again."

Orderly. A kind of scheduled truce. I asked him if this was the right wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he didn't seem to understand right or left as political terms. "They are crazy," he said.

"Are they salafists?" I asked. He looked querulous. "Salafis? Are they Salafis?"

"What is that?" he asked. OK, I thought, pronunciation. He's not getting my pronunciation.

Then he added, "I had never heard the term 'Shiite' until the revolution." This must have been exaggeration. But there's a point to exaggeration, and I assumed he was saying that the Sunni/Shia divide we frequently hear about on the news had not troubled the Egyptians before. He offered us to sit with him and his friend, but I begged off. His smoking, and an early flight to Luxor didn't inspire further talk.

After a long, pleasant, drive from the airport, the land, at first lush and fertile tapered off to chalk-white scree cliffs and valleys. We were at the Valley of the Kings, which I would not have noticed unless we stopped. Completely unlike the pyramids, these tombs are like the Ajanta caves in India, but with far fewer visitors and less visibility. A little trolley took us from the ticket window into the valley, where we then had a choice of three of the 63 tombs to visit. Tutankhamen's required an extra ticket. Considering his early death and little consequence as a ruler, it's amazing how everything associated with his name costs extra. Here were the long passages into Ramesses IV, Seti I, and Merenhotep's tombs, the well-preserved hieroglyphs requiring years of study with E.A. Wallis Budge to make head or tails of. The guards would enter, with either little English or little knowledge, repeating "The god." "This is the god." "This the god," until we found ourselves running from them. There was something sad about the now dead religion, inscrutable to those who'd lived in Luxor their whole lives, the walls protected by Lucite and the mystical Book of Caverns, Book of the Earth, Book of Gates, open to the public, but unopened to most of their minds.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The driver spoke of how things were in the Sinai since the revolution. "You see," he said. "All is very quiet here. The tunnels are blasted. No problem now." Perhaps he meant that the tunnels were no longer needed; that vigilance against the movement of arms to the Palestinians was no longer enforced. Or else he meant that the tunnels had been sealed. In either case, I thought of tunnels once used to glorify and guide the dead, and their presence in contemporary life, to move fuel, food, motorcycles, arms and people. Antiquity and artistry is humbling. The years of great kings and queens, of great arts in their honor were long gone. Only the thieves and smugglers persisted, and a dream of a great leader who would come from their ranks and know their desperation.

Returning back to Cairo, idling in that traffic, the graffiti read: Why Bother?

On my return to the airport after the conference, I met a businessman. I asked him how the revolution had worked out for him. "Business is slow everywhere," he said. "But you see, it was the Muslim Brotherhood who had the ground game." I was surprised by his use of the American expression used to explain Obama's win. "It will take another 10 years before the opposition has the organization. For me, it doesn't matter."

"What about the constitution? Isn't that just being written?"

"Yes," he said. "It will be written and rewritten. In 10 years we'll know whether Egypt has done the right thing."

*

A week later, Morsi and Hillary Clinton were working on the Gaza/Israel treaty, a tenuous truce that momentarily made Morsi seem less a weathervane than a leader. The following day, he assigned himself greater constitutional powers than Mubarak had ever held. Tahrir is now filled again, a draft constitution rushed into being, and already being rewritten by running battles in the streets. Tahrir represents an argument against Egypt's own history of minor, child rulers whose shadows fill its valleys and khans, eternity still haunting the former kingdom, but more inscrutable than ever.